The magic of Tinker Bell dates to the 1904 stage play "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up" by J.M. Barrie and "Peter and Wendy," his 1911 novel, and really took off with Disney's animated 1953 "Peter Pan."
"Along with Mickey Mouse, Tinker Bell is probably the most recognizable character of all time," said Bradley Raymond, director of the Disney 2010 direct-to-video feature "Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue," one in a series on the famous fairy. "She's been popular from 1953 to now because of that multifaceted character we all fell in love with in 'Peter Pan.' ... There's something mysterious about her.”
For children who grew up during the baby boom era, there were two "Peter Pans": the TV version with Mary Martin and the animated feature by Walt Disney. Each had its special charms, and the cartoon "Peter Pan" remains one of the most exciting and colorful films in the Disney canon.
Disney discarded the wistful nostalgia for the illusory innocence of childhood that pervaded Sir James Barrie's original play and replaced it with brash Yankee energy. This Peter Pan is a cocky, all-American boy, more like Tom Sawyer than the smug British popinjay Barrie envisioned.
The Disney artists also changed or discarded much of the traditional stage business. For the first time, Peter was voiced by an actor (Bobby Driscoll), rather than portrayed by an actress. The Crocodile, who had always been an offstage sound effect, appeared on the screen. The artists eliminated Peter's impassioned plea to the audience to clap their hands to prove they believe in fairies and save Tinker Bell's life.
When the film was first released, critics complained about the portrayal of Tinker Bell as a human pixie rather than as a beam of light. This depiction is actually very close to Barrie's descriptions of her as feminine, vain and slightly vulgar. Watch her monumental self-pity as she collapses into tears while Captain Hook bewails her abandonment by Peter.
The movements of Tinker Bell in the Disney classic were modeled on Margaret Kerry. On a bare soundstage, wearing her own bathing suit as a costume, and assisted only by an occasional oversized prop or mattresses to pad a fall, the then-22-year-old Kerry, along with other actors, enacted the production's storyboards, giving animators reference films for gestures, key poses and timing.
That old footage is still preserved in the Disney archives and was pulled out nearly 50 years later for animators creating 2002's "Return to Never Land."
"Lots of people don't understand all this," says Kerry. "They think the entire movie comes from the animator's head, but I say wait a minute — Marc Davis [Tinker Bell's animator] is a man's man — how does he know how a 3 1/2-inch sprite is going to move, get angry, or stamp her foot? And how does he know what kind of emotion would go behind that? How does he know how Wendy's skirt will wrap when she walks? Or flies for that matter? What Marc did was take something and then exaggerate it so it was more truly delightful."
Kerry easily recognizes her own body language in the 1953 film. So did her second husband, Jack Willcox, whom she once took to a "Peter Pan" screening. "I was so excited and nudging him," she recalls. "'There I am!' I said. 'Jack! Jack! Jack, that's me!' He just leaned over and said, 'Margaret, I'd recognize those thighs anywhere.'"